By Meredith Camel
CORAL GABLES, Fla. (February 18, 2016) – In 1979, two years after celebrity spokesperson Anita Bryant waged a campaign that contributed to the passage of anti-gay parenting laws in Florida, Miami native Ronni Sanlo lost custody of, and subsequently all contact with, her two young children as a result of these laws. She would spend the next 35-plus years channeling her pain and anger into her work as a civil rights activist, higher education scholar, and national authority on what it takes to provide LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning) college students with the resources they need to feel safe, included, and valued in their campus community.
To help the University of Miami sculpt the vision for its forthcoming LGBTQ center, the Division of Student Affairs brought Sanlo to UM’s Coral Gables campus February 17-18 to lead strategic planning sessions with faculty, staff, students, and alumni who volunteered their ideas.
Sanlo, a former HIV epidemiologist who served as director of the LGBT center at the University of Michigan and at UCLA, where she also was senior associate dean of students and director of the Master of Education in Student Affairs program, is perhaps best known as the founder of Lavender Graduation. Last year the University of Miami held its first Lavender Graduation, an event hundreds of colleges and universities nationwide host annually to celebrate the accomplishments and contributions of their graduating LGBTQ and ally students.
As part of UM President Julio Frenk’s core initiative to foster a “culture of belonging” for all students, the University this year will hire a staff member and create a center dedicated to supporting students of all sexual orientations and gender identities/expressions.
In her first workshop, which included about 40 participants, Sanlo guided teams through a series of brainstorming sessions on the goals, vision, and mission of the center, followed by a voting process that systematically identified the most meaningful statements. The second-day session enabled a smaller group of administrators and key participants to further refine the direction.
“I believe in casting the widest net,” Sanlo told the first group. “For all of you who are here, your voices are part of the foundation of this work.”
Sanlo encouraged the groups to think about the LGBTQ space on campus as a place for open, honest, respectful discourse on gender and sexuality and their intersections with topics such as race, religion, politics, and community.
“What you’re not creating is the campus closet,” she said. “The services that ultimately will be provided are far more broad than just a tiny spot on campus. As director of LGBT centers, I had to make sure they were safe and welcoming for those who share my political leanings as well as those who do not.”
In the evening of February 17, the Cosford Cinema screened Andrea Meyerson’s film Letter to Anita, followed by a Q&A session with Sanlo. Narrated by actress Meredith Baxter, the film is based on a letter to Anita Bryant that Sanlo wrote and included in her memoir. It documents Sanlo’s personal journey while chronicling Florida’s history of anti-gay legislation dating back to the Johns Committee in the 1950s, which persecuted gay and lesbian students and faculty at Florida public schools and colleges. The film also depicts Sanlo’s heartwarming reunion with her now-adult children and grandchildren.
“If we don’t document our own history, it will be lost,” said Sanlo, who frequently conducts writing workshops that help LGBTQ people write their stories. “I want my children and grandchildren to know they can live their lives freely because we walked before them—and many of us died before them. If we don’t write our own history, our young people will never know on whose shoulders they stand.”